Sunday, June 21, 2020

#173 / Father's Day Stories

I didn't know my father back when he was riding a motorcycle and delivering telegrams for Western Union. That was before I was born. I did know him in 2001, which is when the pastel portrait at the bottom of this blog posting was made.

Given that this is Father's Day, I thought that an appreciation of my father, Philips Bowerman Patton, usually called "Phil," would be in order. I am following up, in other words, on the idea I mentioned last Wednesday, trying to document how my Dad taught me about "possibility." Another reason for this posting is to memorialize at least a few of my best "Phil Patton stories" for my children and grandchildren. My father was a very impressive person, and my children, and their children, deserve to have a reference to these stories. I am thinking they might want to return to them when I am not around, myself, to tell them one more time. Given my age, that could be any moment now!

American Boy magazine was published from November 1899 to August 1941. My father was born on September 25, 1914, and I guess my Dad's mother had a subscription for him, because when my father was fifteen, he entered a contest, sponsored by the magazine, and won. Geri, the great grandson of the famous "movie dog hero Strongheart," was the prize. The magazine asked, on behalf of Geri, for "American Boys," from all over the country, to write out a job description, and to offer Geri a job. In July 1930, the magazine announced: "In the near future, [Geri] will be boarding a train for St. Anthony, Idaho, to start his life work as family manager, house detective, and all-around pal to Phil B. Patton, AMERICAN BOY reader. For Geri has selected his home. From more than six hundred letters, written in response to the Pup's want ad in the May contest announcement, Geri finally picked Patton's as offering the most interesting and worthwhile career."

Here's what my Dad wrote, as presented in the magazine:

Come Out to Idaho, Pup
By Phil B. Patton (15)
St. Anthony Idaho 
First Prize

FROM the latest copy of THE AMERICAN BOY I gather that you want to sign up for a position in which there is little work but a lot of fun. Well, here’s my offer.

You will be expected to be on the job twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. You will have for a boss an “American Boy,” fifteen years old, who, since nine years ago (when he realized he could never have a brother) has longed and hoped for a dog. Your duties will be as follows:

About midsummer you will be expected to go to Scout camp with me. Of course, you will be the idol of every boy there, and the mascot of our troop. Then, when the first light snows come, you and I will hunt jack rabbits. Oh, yes, there are thousands of them within two miles of my home. You see, there are only three thousand people in our town. Then, as the winter progresses, we will go to the Great American Dog Derby, which is held at Ashton, Idaho, only eighteen miles from my home.

When spring comes, you and I, Pup, are going squirrel hunting. We will go for week-end trips into the mountains, and of course the summer can’t pass without us going through Yellowstone Park. Then, too, Pup, about twice a month, you and I will to out into the green meadow and roll up in a blanket to sleep. At five o’clock we’ll wake to the chirping of crickets and the “caw caw” of magpies. Jumping up for a duck in the pond, we will watch the wonderful sun peep over the Teton peaks and climb toward the top of the sky. After that, we’ll take our pole and get some native, rainbow, or spotted trout for breakfast. Do you see the fun we could have and the comradeship I could give you, and you me?

Pup, already I feel that we know each other. I think you’ll have to admit life is worth living out here “Where the West begins.” And, Pup, I work in a store that has a meat counter, so even if my finances sink so low that I can’t feed myself, there will always be plenty for you to eat. If you come, I positively guarantee to put enough flesh on you to fill your entire skin!

And, Pup, remember this, that what I can’t offer you in other things, I will make up in day-to-day companionship. To think that maybe – I scarce dare hope it, but maybe ----

Sadly, my Dad's mother died shortly after Geri showed up in St. Anthony. So, there were no jack rabbits. No trips to Yellowstone. No rainbow trout. The famous trainer who had personally come to St. Anthony when the dog was orginally delivered had to come back, and he took Geri away. As is shown in the photos, though, my father did, at least, have a few happy moments with Geri. Shortly after his mother died, however, when he was still fifteen years old, my Dad was sent to live with his older sister, my Aunt Marjorie, in San Francisco.

From my own point of view, there was one very significant "upside" to this sad story.

It was in San Francisco, when they were both students in Polytechnic High School, that my father met my mother. Had that not happened, I don't think that I would be around here to tell the tale. Speaking strictly from my own personal perspective, that move to San Francisco turned out to be a very good thing!

My father was really a great writer, as you can tell from that story about Geri and the contest sponsored by American Boy magazine. That ability to write turned out to be pretty important with respect to his relationship to my mother, too.

The way I remember the story is that my mother, then Alma Bracken, came into a classroom where my father was taking a class, to make some kind of announcement. I think she was trying to sell subscriptions to the school newspaper, or something like that. My father was immediately smitten, and he began pursuing my mother. My mother, though - at least the way I understand it - was not immediately and reciprocally attracted to my father, at least not in quite the same way.

It is my supposition that my mother was pretty "popular" in high school, and that my father, having just arrived in the big city from little St. Anthony, Idaho, was not exactly one of the "popular" set. My Dad was really involved with experiments with electricity, and radio. I won't claim he was a "nerd," because I actually don't know that, and that word didn't really exist then, either, but I think my Dad might have been the equivalent.

Nerd or not, my father did pursue my mother, and that continued even after high school, when my Dad was working for Western Union and my Mom was working for some kind of insurance company. My Dad was always on the track. I have had a chance to read my father's love letters to my mother, which I think are now in the custody of my sister Nancy (though I am not positive about that), and they were extremely well-written. VERY persuasive. Unrelenting, you might even say - but his years' long campaign to win my mother's heart was ultimately successful.

My Mom and Dad were married in July 1940, and I was born in December 1943. As I have noted, that move from St. Anthony had big benefits for me!

After high school, my father moved up in the Western Union hierarchy. He went from being a motorcycle delivery boy to being the manager of one of the Western Union storefront offices in San Francisco. I have in my mind that the office he managed was on Market Street, but I could be wrong. I assume that the office my father managed is the office shown in the picture at the top of this blog posting, and if yuou scale the picture up, and if you then look closely, the front door of that office suggests that customers should check with the Main Office, at 711 Market Street, after 12:00 p.m. Who knows where the pictured office was? Could there have been more than one office on Market Street? Of course, I don't know, and my Dad is not around to fill in the gaps. I also question whether that sign on the door is actually correct. Did that office really close at noon? That's what it seems to say. It says that the office will be closed after 12:00 p.m., not 12:00 a.m. The picture indicates that the photo was taken at a little before 4:00 in the afternoon, and I somehow doubt that my Dad came back to a closed-down office to have himself photo-immortalized on his motorcycle.

At any rate, in the 1940s, Western Union provided main line communication services for the nation. As a communications provider, Western Union was at least as important as the various telephone companies, which were still somewhat new. After the United States entered the war, Western Union handled a lot of war-related communications for the U.S. Government, and my Dad, as the manager of a small branch office in San Francisco, thought that the government could make a lot more effective use of Western Union's services. Thus, my father wrote a detailed letter to President Roosevelt, outlining the positive changes that my father recommended, and how those changes could help the war effort.

The President did not, personally, respond. However, the President did refer my Dad's letter to the Federal Communications Commission, and the FCC contacted him, and offered him a job in Washington, D.C., to help the FCC and the war effort. As you might imagine, my father jumped at the chance. I was, perhaps, one year old, and he bundled my mother, and me, into a car of some kind, and drove all the way across the country to take this job. When he showed up in the FCC's offices in Washington, D.C., he was asked to fill out an official application, which he did. However, the application revealed that my father's education ended when he graduated from Polytechnic High School, and the FCC told him that he was not qualified and couldn't be hired without a college degree.

This was, of course, kind of bad news!!

My father, apparently, was able to survive economically because he was hired back, on some sort of temporary basis, in a Western Union office in Washington, D.C.. While he worked for Western Union, he didn't give up on the FCC. He became just as persistent in wooing the FCC as he had been in wooing my mother. Finally, he was given the job that he had been offered, and he made friends in the FCC that stayed with him his entire life. When my Dad became a lawyer, much later in his life, when he was living in Santa Cruz, he quickly became associated with a Washington, D.C. law firm that was run by one of the friends he made back in the FCC during the war.

My Dad did serve in the war, as a radio officer in the United States Navy, and he was based on Espiritu Santo, in the South Pacific. After the war, he got a job with the Farnsworth Corporation, which had taken over a bankrupt firm with factories and offices in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My sister, Nancy, was born in Fort Wayne, and while I barely remember it, I do know that it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. My mother, reportedly, did not like it one bit. She wanted to move back to the San Francisco Bay Area, not only because she liked the weather better, but also because her friends and family lived there.

Accordingly, my father kept his eyes out for job opportunities back home. One time, he travelled for Farnsworth to a trade show held somewhere in Florida (as I'm remembering the story), and as he toured through the various booths he came across the booth of the Lenkurt Electric Company, based in San Carlos, California. According to Wikipedia, Lenkurt probably had about seventy-five employees in 1947, which is probably when my father became aware of the company. He reviewed their various instructional and promotional materials, as displayed in the Lenkurt booth, and made an immediate pitch to be hired, telling the founders that he could much improve their publications and other materials. He was just a better writer!

Unfortunately, my father's pitch was rejected - and not because Len Erickson and Kurt Appert didn't believe him. They just couldn't afford to take on a new employee; at least, that's what they told my Dad, and that's what I understand he told my mother, when he got back to Fort Wayne.

I don't know exactly what their conversation was, and who pushed whom, but the fact is that my father decided to quit his job with Farnsworth, and he and my Mom headed back to the Bay Area, bringing my sister and me with them. Dad had no new job waiting, but when he and my mother arrived, my Dad went to Lenkurt and offered to work for free, to prove to the founders that he was worth it. He proved it! He essentially wrote himself back to the West Coast. Dad was hired by Lenkurt, and ended up as their Vice President for International Sales. He left when Lenkurt was bought out by General Telephone and Electronics, which is when he and my mother moved to Santa Cruz.

As already indicated in that earlier blog posting, my commitment to "possibility," and to the "anything is possible" approach to life, came from my Dad. That book I mentioned, As A Man Thinketh, was my father's gift to me on my eighteenth birthday. The stories I have just recounted well illustrate how the message of that book, that anything is possible, was convincingly demonstrated by my father's own life.

The "you can do anything" message was a message constantly repeated to me during my growing-up years. However, it was a message applied as a "corrective," because my impulse, faced with any challenge or obstacle, was always to say, "I can't do it."

I would say, "I can't do it," and my father would then tell me I could do it, and he would make me do it, but even if I accomplished whatever task it was that he required me to do, I never really believed my Dad, and I never internalized his "you can do anything" admonition. At least, not until I had the experience I describe below.

Here is the story, which is absolutely true. This is a story about my Dad that really has me at the center, and I think it's my favorite story, since the events I am going to describe fundamentally and dramatically changed my life, as I finally accepted the truth of what my father had been trying for years to get me to see. Ironically, I learned that I could do anything by proving just the opposite, by proving my inability to do what my father was asking me to do.

My Dad loved to carry out various home improvement projects, particularly if they involved electricity, but we did a lot of plumbing projects, too. I was generally called into service as a helper. One day, my Dad asked me to help him do some electrical wiring under our house at 740 Center Drive, in Palo Alto, a very nice ranch-style home that has now been torn down and replaced by three different new monster houses.

To do this wiring job, we needed to go under the house, and there was a little hatch in the floor in a closet off the main hallway. That is where we went down into the crawl space. I think my Dad, then forty-five or forty-six years old, must certainly have had difficulties crawling over to where he was going to be doing the new wiring; that crawl was easier for me, and my job was to be there to help carry the tools, and to shine a flashlight on the wires, so my Dad could see what he was doing. My Dad was lying on his back, wedged into that tight crawl space, dirt underneath him and cobwebbed floor joists above; I was there, ready to help and assist. After a few minutes, my father suddenly realized that he had forgotten to bring the diagonal cutters, the wire cutters, that were an absolutely essential tool needed to complete the job.

"Gary," he said, "go to the workshop and bring me the diagonal cutters." The workshop was in a completely different building, and it had a work bench, and a photo darkroom, and lots of tools of all kinds. I knew exactly the tool that my father wanted, but I also knew that I was not going to be able to find those diagonal cutters.

"Dad," I told him, "I don't think I can find them." My Dad got irritated. Of course he did! This was a typical Gary A. Patton response: "I can't do it." Not yet really mad, my father just said, "they're in the workshop; they have red handles; go get them."

I said, "OK," but I knew that I would fail. And I did fail. I searched everywhere, and as I suspected, the wirecutters were not in the workshop. It was with some trepidation that I returned, crawling back to my Dad, to tell him that I couldn't find the diagonal cutters.

Now, my Dad was more than a little upset. He definitely did not want to have to crawal through the dirt and lift himself through that little hatch himself, when I could do that much more easily. "Gary," he told me, "they are right on the workbench. Now go get them and bring them back."

Of course, I had searched, and I knew they weren't there, but I told my Dad I'd try, though I alerted him to the fact that I would almost certainly be unsuccessful.

And I was unsuccessful. As I knew I would be. I looked everywhere on the workbench, and everywhere else, too, and the diagonal cutters just weren't there. My father wasn't always right; he did make mistakes, which is what I knew he had done this time, but I was really nervous about having to deliver that bad news.

I returned through the hatch and crawled out to where my father was still lying on his back, waiting for the wirecutters. "I couldn't find them, Dad," I said. He was just as mad as I knew he would be.

"Look, Gary," my father told me. "They are on the workbench, right next to my soldering iron. You know where that is, right? Now, go get them."

They weren't there. Of course. As I knew they wouldn't be, since I had already been looking everywhere, including on the workbench next to the soldering iron. When I came back the third time with my "I can't do it" response, my father was totally exasperated. He turned himself over; crawling on his elbows through the dirt, he returned to the hatch and heaved himself through. I followed. I stayed about three steps behind him as he went across our patio to the workshop. He went through the door, and by the time I had followed him inside he was at the workbench. I got there just in time to see him reach on to the workbench, right by his soldering iron, and pick up the diagonal cutters,  the ones with the red handles. They were right where he said they were.

We went back and finished the job. I don't think he yelled at me. He didn't hit me, or bawl me out, but what had happened proved to me, more than any speech ever could, that my mind was what determined what I could, and couldn't do. I had decided I couldn't find the wirecutters, and I proved it.

I learned, right then, that my father was right, and that he'd been right all along. If I could make myself NOT do something, by telling myself I couldn't do it, and if I could make something become impossible because I told myself it was impossible, then I could do the opposite, too. I could do just what my father always said was true, and I could do anything, just because I decided I would.

My Dad, who never went to college, was a great writer. My Dad, who came from a poor family in which his father had abandoned his mother, made a wonderful life for my mother, me, and my two sisters and my brother. After he retired from Lenkurt, and spent some time as a kind of "gentleman farmer" in the Santa Cruz mountains, my father decided he wanted to be a lawyer. He wrote and talked himself into Santa Clara Law School, when he was almost fifty years old. Despite his lack of a college degree, the law school took him. He graduated number two in his law school class, and he was a really great lawyer.

My Dad could do anything!

I was born in 1943, and at some point, by the time I was six or seven years old, I started asking my parents why they named me "Gary." There was no "Gary" among our relatives, and I really wished that I could have been named after my Dad. I would have liked to have been named, "Philips." That was a family name. My father's mother's maiden name was Clara Olney Philips.

"Why did you name me, Gary?" I asked that question on numerous occasions as I was growing up, and I never really got what I thought was a very good answer. Candidly, I felt that my parents more or less dodged the issue. Usually, they said that they had "just liked the name." A few times, I remember, my mother told me that "Gary Cooper was just so handsome; I think that's why we named you Gary." I never was much convinced.

Naturally, all the kids in our family knew the story about the movie dog that my father had won in the American Boy contest, and I think we had all read his winning letter ourselves. After the family moved to Santa Cruz, my mother kept pictures and various memorabilia of various kinds in an unsorted pile in a little cabinet in our front hall, and that included a clipping of the story about Geri from American Boy.

One day, when I was home from college, I decided for some reason that I would like to read that famous letter once again, and I went to look for it. It wasn't there. It had been in that pile of miscellaneous stuff in that front hall cabinet, but now it was missing. I asked my Mom, and she had no explanation, but then she said, sort of out of the blue, "You know, winning Geri [which she pronounced, "Gary"] was one of the greatest things that ever happened to your father." She must have known, immediately, what she had done, because I saw a look of panic on her face, as she realized that she had finally revealed to me the actual answer to my often-asked question, the question that she had always dodged, whenever I asked it. "Why did you name me "Gary?' Well, it was now clear to me; I was named for the dog. Never had it occurred to me that "Geri," the dog's name, was pronounced, "Gary." Now I knew!

I never talked about it with my Dad; at least I don't remember doing that. I was kind of stunned when I first realized that I had been named for a dog. Then, I thought about it a little more. I thought about what winning that dog had meant to my father. It was a pretty wonderful thing. It proved he could do anything.

Geri was a really great dog! I am convinced of that, and I like to think that when my Dad named me after Geri, he was hoping that I'd be great, too.

My own hope is that I have done OK, and to the degree I have, I want to credit my parents, including my father, quite specifically. Today's a good day to say it once again:

Image Credits:
(1), (2) and (3) Gary A. Patton, personal photos
(4) - Portrait of Philips B. Patton by Susan Kahn (2001)

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful portrait of your father, and at the same time, of you. Very moving and full of wonder. Inspiring. Beautiful writing too. Thank you.


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